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City works to keep cars off yards, homeless out of vacant buildings

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Posted: Friday, March 18, 2005 10:00 pm

Plywood covers the doors and windows, knee-high grass grows thick in the front yard and broken glass glints through the blades of grass as a breeze sways it back and forth.

Dirty, discarded clothes and other refuse litters the rest of the yard of the house in the 400 block of Railroad Avenue. With peeling paint and stained walls, the house looks discarded.

It is abandoned, but the backyard is not. Behind the house one finds a homeless person's encampment consisting of several shopping carts packed with sleeping bags, blankets and assorted junk, surrounding a tent.

The house is a problem property, one of dozens creating blight that the city of Lodi and residents have to deal with on a daily basis.

In the past year, the city received 817 complaints of violations to its housing code -- that's a little more than two a day, seven days a week. But through its code enforcement program and City Attorney's Office, the city is working to bring these problem properties into line.

Code violations can be prosecuted as misdemeanor offenses, but are treated as a low priority by the county District Attorney's Office. State law, however, gives city attorneys the power to initiate criminal charges in cases of code violations, and Lodi's new Deputy City Attorney Janice Magdich said she will make it a priority with the assistance of Lodi's community improvement manager, Joseph Wood. The city is already looking to pursue litigation against one homeowner for a treehouse.

No one is at home in the encampment behind the house on Railroad Avenue on a recent Friday afternoon when Wood pays the house a visit.

Homeless people have been using it for some time, Wood said, because the house has been vacant for about four years. He said at one point the fire department was called to the house after one homeless man set fire to another's bed.

Today, the mess inside the house is just as bad as outside it.

"At one point it had 6 to 8 inches of dog feces throughout," Wood said.

He said the building's elderly owner has moved into an assisted-care residence and her relatives have neither taken care of the property, nor responded to the city's requests to have the building cleaned up.

Homeowners break many city code violations by allowing garbage to sit in their driveways for months at a time, like this one in the 100 block of Anderson Avenue in Lodi. (Angelina Gervasi/News-Sentinel)

"We've given them years to do this," Wood said. "They're just completely nonresponsive."

The property is rife with housing code violations, which is why the city has initiated the process to demolish the building.

Demolition is the end for most homes who have fallen into such a state of disrepair that they don't comply with much of the city's housing code. In several areas of Lodi, the problems of residential overcrowding and poor planning have created code violations.

'We own this house'

After stopping by the house on Railroad Avenue, Wood met up with one of the city's two code enforcement officers. They had received complaints of people living in a garage of a house in the 700 block of Garfield Street.

Once at the property, the two walked up to a young man, Luis Millan, sitting on the front porch who led them back to the garage. Inside they found couches set up along with a coffee table, TV and a weight set on one side of the garage alongside a parked car.

After taking a look, Wood explained to Millan, whose mother owned the house, that in order to keep the garage how it was they would have to go before the city and obtain a building permit for improvements to the garage, such as putting sheetrock up on the walls.

"I feel it's stupid," Millan said. "We own this house."

Because it's their property, Millan said his family should use it how they see fit. He said it shouldn't be against the law just to pull some couches into their garage for a place for him, his family and friends to hang out in.

But Wood said garages in general are not designed as living spaces and their exposed plumbing, wiring and appliances such as water heater pose serious risks.

Sometimes homes can be rehabilitated. Not far from the home on Railroad Avenue, a well-maintained house has a sign posted on a tree in the front yard advertising it's available for rent at $1,000 a month.

That house was "a dilapidated shack," Wood said. But he explained that after the previous tenants moved out, the city worked with the owner to sell the home to someone would rehabilitate it. It's an example of how the city can save some homes from demolition.

Enforcing the code

The city divides its code enforcement into five main categories. These include dangerous buildings, substandard housing, nuisance, zoning and miscellaneous.

Dangerous buildings include vacant and unsecured structures, fire-damaged buildings and illicit drug labs where houses are used to manufacture methamphetamine.

Broken windows remain boarded at this abandoned house in the 400 block of Railroad Avenue in Lodi. (Angelina Gervasi/News-Sentinel)

Sub-standard housing includes inadequate sanitation and rodent and other pest infestation. Miscellaneous includes unlawful occupancies and encroachment violations.

Most code infraction cases arise out of nuisance complaints. This category includes lack of adequate property maintenance, criminal activities, noise, vendor violations, illegal dumping, shopping carts and animal violations.

From March 2004 to February 2005, the city had a total of 817 complaints and 676 code violation cases.

Most often these complaints concern property maintenance such as peeling paint and cracked pathways. During the period of Feb. 1 to March 10 the city received 23 such complaints, 12 complaints of deteriorated housing and three complaints of uninhabitable conditions.

Wood said it is routine to have one complaint deal with several categories of violations and to receive several complaints about one problem, hence the discrepancy between complaints and cases.

"Housing and dangerous building cases are more involved and require substantially more time than the investigation of nuisance and other complaints," Wood said. "They make up the bulk of our workload."

Lodi has two code enforcement officers, however, neither would consent to being interviewed or having their photo taken.

"They wish to maintain some anonymity," Wood said, adding the officers do not handle cases in the vicinity of where they live.

"The folks that we deal with can be less than cooperative and sometimes downright threatening," he said.

The city's code enforcement program has been in place for nine years. Wood said during that span, Lodi has dealt with problem property owners who "controlled a number of substandard properties."

But he said the city has been able to effectively deal with most of those owners and their property.

Code Violation Statistics
The city fielded 817 complaints and investigated 676 cases of code violations from March 2004 to February 2005.
Com-plaints Cases
Housing 281 226
Dangerous Building 46 32
Nuisance 287 247
Zoning 184 157
Misc. 19 14
Source: City of Lodi Community Improvement Division.

"Those owners are gone for the most part, having either passed away or come to the realization that the city was not going to back down on our enforcement of housing regulations," Wood said. "Those problem properties have either been sold off and rehabilitated, or they've been torn down."

As there are only two enforcement officers, Wood said the city focuses on substandard housing, dangerous buildings and vehicle abatement. Other complaints are dealt with by posting "courtesy notices."

These succeed about 65 percent of the time in getting people to comply, and when they don't, the cases are put into a back log for enforcement officers to handle when they get a chance, Wood said.

When steps taken by code enforcement don't remedy the situation, Wood said the city can take legal action.

Magdich, the deputy city attorney, said the city can pursue criminal misdemeanor charges or civil lawsuits against property owners suspected of code violations. The choice is up to the City Council, she said.

Police can only do so much

Councilman Larry Hansen, reached by phone while out of town at a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., said he does not find the number of code complaints in Lodi surprising.

"I think Lodians have a high standard for what their neighbors' yards and homesites should look like," said the former police chief.

People know about the city's code enforcement program and aren't shy in calling in complaints, Hansen said.

For serious cases, he said the city, and City Council, are doing as much as it can within the confines of a tight budget.

Whether it could do more is possibly debatable, but Hansen said the city is doing everything it can.

The state's government code gives city attorney offices the power to pursue criminal charges against people who break municipal codes, Magdich said.

Currently, in one of the more unusual cases of code violations, the city is considering initiating litigation against a property owner on Kenway Court in West Lodi who has $5,000 in outstanding fees for a 120-square-foot tree house he built behind his home. The council discussed the case during a closed session of its regular meeting last Wednesday.

Often when a resident has a problem with a neighbor the police are called before contacting the city's code enforcement program.

Lodi Police Lt. Chet Somera said the police department will respond to reports of code violations, often noise complaints for example, but said the department forwards those complaints to other city departments.

"It's finding the right department to appropriately handle any given issue," Somera said, explaining that animal control can better handle a problem pet and the city's Electric Utility can take care of electrical problems.

Code enforcement categories

The city of Lodi puts code enforcement into five categories:

Dangerous buildings: Vacant and unsecured structures, fire-damaged buildings, dilapidated commercial structures, open pits, drug labs and abandoned construction

Substandard housing: Inadequate sanitation, uninhabitable conditions, rodent and pest infestation, illegal occupancy, deteriorated housing, tampered electrical meters and lack of gas and electrical utilities

Nuisance: Lack of property maintenance, criminal activities, noise complaints, vehicle abatement, vendor violations, illegal dumping, shopping carts animal violations and camper and trailer occupancy.

Zoning: Improper uses, businesses in residential areas, sign violations, outdoor businesses, refuse containers, commercial vehicles, accessory building violations and fence and setback violations.

Miscellaneous: Unpermitted occupancies, business licensing, encroachment violations, working without permits, and lot drainage.

Source: City of Lodi Community Improvement Division

Police officers generally won't get into code enforcement, Somera said, but officers do have the ability to ticket people for offenses.

He said, for instance, that if the city's development department tagged an abandoned building uninhabitable they would let police know about it. If officers are patrolling by the building and notice people have camped out inside, the officers will take action.

"We will certainly turn around and issue a citation," Somera said.

High density equals more problems

Much of the city's current housing problems can be traced back to design and development decisions made several decades ago, Wood said.

He said one sees these issues predominately in the city's Eastside where a high level of density and certain types of development cause problems.

"One issue is simply the density," he said. "There are more residents per block."

Density is an issue, because areas in the Eastside became heavily populated without proper planning and improvements to the infrastructure.

Wood explained that often in the past people built second or even third units on the same lots of single family homes. That pushed residences right out onto streets and alleyways crowding homes and family's into tight places.

"We're saddled with previous problems," he said.

But he also points out that the Westside is not immune to code problems, noting police and city officials have found several meth labs in the area, most recently this past summer in an apartment complex near the intersection of Rutledge Drive and Turner Road.

In addition to resolving the nuisance and housing complaints that arise out of such housing situations, Wood said the city is going through neighborhoods in the Eastside improving sewer and water lines.

"You can't take and put half the city's population in small area and not expect problems," said Eileen St. Yves who manages an apartment complex off Lodi Avenue.

St. Yves who serves on the Lodi Improvement Committee, formerly known as the Eastside Improvement Committee, also said problems on the Eastside, especially around Locust Avenue, are the result of poor planning that let smaller apartment buildings be built on lots meant for homes, which "screws up the infrastructure something horrendous," she said.

As an apartment owner, St. Ives said she has been lucky for the most part in that her tenants usually stick to the city's code. The biggest problem for her is tenants flushing down the toilet things like grease and diapers, which back up sewer lines.

One of the more serious instances of when a tenant ran afoul of the city's codes occurred with a woman who used her apartment as part of her business.

"I had a resident who decided she was going to use her apartment to prepare all her food for her lunch wagon," St. Ives said.

She said the resident moved out after receiving a few notices from the city. But she said in general most of her tenants don't create problems.

"You have some people, no matter what, who are good stewards … and you have some people who feel the rules are just for everyone else," she said.

Other property managers also said in general tenants keep their units in order, and it's only the small minority of people who they have to work with to ensure their properties stay in code.

After growing up in Lodi's Eastside, Councilwoman JoAnne Mounce said she's seen first hand how buildings can fall into disrepair.

In fact, her great aunt used to live in a small house on one of the many alleys that bisect streets in the Eastside.

"You can't even tell its the same place because the condition of the place is just run into the ground," she said.

Mounce said that people who own rentals should be treated as if they are providing a service for the public and held to a high regard.

"You've got residential rental properties that (are) just garbage that people are receiving rent for and that is unacceptable."

If a property owner has trouble keeping up their house, Mounce said the city has programs to help them afford repairs. But Mounce draws the line when people are making money off renting dilapidated homes.

To help fight that, the councilwoman said the city should have a larger code enforcement program, with more enforcement officers.

Wood started in city improvement services working as a code enforcement officer for the city of Stockton in 1989. He came to Lodi six years later to help start up the code enforcement program here.

Despite the problems he's seen, Wood said Lodi on the whole is a city where people work to keep their properties in order.

"There's a lot of pride to keep the community the way it is and not allow it to deteriorate."

Contact reporter Andrew Adams at andrewa@lodinews.com.

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